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date: 26 January 2021

Abstract and Keywords

Most neuroscientific investigations of human thought have examined it through the prism of task-based paradigms. Thinking is often seen in terms of reasoning and problems solving, or the goal-directed mental processes that occur in the course of solving a particular task. Such goal-directed thought has been closely linked to the functions of the lateral prefrontal cortex and its associated mechanism of cognitive control. Goal-directed thought is often organized in a hierarchical fashion and can rely on relational reasoning and different levels of abstraction in processing—all functions that have been linked to lateral prefrontal function and organization. The last decade of research, however, has seen an upsurge of interest in undirected thought phenomena such as mind wandering and spontaneous thought. Undirected thought processes have been linked to recruitment of the default network of brain regions, the executive system, and the temporal lobe memory network. The terminology and paradigms for investigating undirected thought are still being developed, and research is moving beyond strictly task-based paradigms and toward incorporating introspective first-person reports in order to better understand undirected thought. While goal-directed and undirected thought appear to be in some ways opposites, another form of thought, creative thinking, can bring them together to form a unique approach in tapping the fullness of human mental resources. Finally, recursive thought phenomena such as meta-awareness and introspection appear to be closely linked to the functions of the anterior prefrontal cortex. However, a distinction between meta-awareness of content and process may need to be made in order to better explain the role of this region in recursive thought.

Keywords: goal-directed thought, relational processing, levels of abstraction, undirected thought, mind wandering, spontaneous thought, creative thought, default network, executive network, memory network

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